Daniel is an Old Testament prophet who interprets dreams and visions. One of the best-known incidents to befall him occurs at the feast of Belshazzar. When mysterious writing appears on the wall of the king’s palace, he enlists Daniel to interpret it for him. To his horror, Daniel reveals that the text announces God has decreed an end to his kingdom, the Babylonian empire, and will divide it among the Persians and the Medes, saying, “Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting” (Daniel 5:27). Read the whole of the Book of Daniel here.
Richard Bellingham (c.1592-1672) was a colonial magistrate who moved from Lincolnshire in England to Massachusetts in 1634. He was elected as the eighth Governor of the colony in 1641. Though he didn’t manage to retain this position for more than a year, he was re-elected in 1654, and then again in 1665. Between times, he held powerful posts in the colonial council of assistants. Though his main contribution to future generations was the Body of Liberties (1641), which enshrined freedoms later included in the Bill of Rights, he took a harsh attitude towards Quakers and Baptists and was among the magistrates who presided over Anne Hutchinson’s banishment.
Originally from Sudbury in Suffolk, John Wilson made the voyage to New England in 1630 and served as the first minister of the colony, first at Charlestown and then at Boston. Until his death in 1667, this religiously orthodox figure was responsible for expounding the meaning of the scriptures not only to the Puritan faithful but also to Native Americans. He clashed severely with Anne Hutchinson, who questioned his emphasis on the doctrine of works, and delivered the final verdict in the trial against her.
These author portraits from collections of seventeenth-century sermons exude the brooding and somber air Hawthorne describes.
This institution is specified in chapter nine as being the University of Oxford. The oldest English-speaking university in the world and among the best regarded, it dates back to the late eleventh century. That Dimmesdale studied here not only identifies him as a man of subtle intellect but also suggests a possible motivation for his joining the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the years following the Reformation, the University of Oxford was a Catholic-free domain: Calvinists dominated, but Puritans were a continuously-represented body. This changed in 1628 when William Laud was made Chancellor. Having spent his earlier years trying to suppress Puritans within the church, he used his new position to do the same in the university and endeavoured to turn it into a royalist stronghold. Any Puritans attempting to oppose him found themselves facing as bloody a punishment as anything described in The Scarlet Letter.
Hawthorne drew this name from Caleb Snow’s History of Boston (1825), which makes mention of one “Richard Parker or Brackett, whose name we find on the colony records as prison keeper so early as 1638. He had ‘the market stead’ on the east, the prison yard west, and the meeting house on the south“ (p.116).
Scientific understanding accelerated rapidly following the onset of the Scientific Revolution. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) had described the heliocentric universe; Andreas Vesalius (1514-64) had produced his ground-breaking work on human anatomy; Ambroise Paré (1510-90) pioneered surgery; and Michael Servetus (1509/11-53) described pulmonary circulation. Despite this, incursions into the field of medicine were minor: belief in the four humors prevailed and diseases were usually treated by bloodletting. Plant medicines were also used, though with opium among the most popular, the remedy could sometimes be more damaging than the disease.
For Native Americans, medicine and religion were inextricable and illness was usually ascribed to supernatural causes. As in Europe, cures took the form of purification, though the Native American sweat-lodge was both more effective and more pleasant than the bloodletting favored on the other side of the Atlantic. Medicines and poultices were derived from animal fats and plants. John Josselyn, who visited New England in 1638, records that the local Native Americans used white hellebore to treat wounds, toothache and herpes. Coughs and colds were allayed with a compound including sassafras root, wormwood, Jerusalem oak goosefoot, liquorice, aniseed and fennel-seed. Chewed-up alder tree bark cured cut knees, and boils were induced to burst with sterilized hemlock bark.
Settlers' attitudes to Native American medicine varied wildly. While those such as Josselyn were keen to learn, the majority held it to be devilry and shunned it accordingly. Despite this, many plant remedies found their way into the white settlers’ medicine cabinets and some continue to be used to this day.
Alchemy is an ancient philosophical tradition that combined what would, in later centuries, resolve into the separate disciplines of chemistry, occultism and metallurgy. Its main objectives were to transmute base metals into gold or silver and to discover the elixir of life. During the early seventeenth century, alchemists enjoyed high standing and monarchs would employ them as scientific consultants. Though the philosopher’s stone and elixir of life remained pipe dreams and occultist practices later became associated with charlatanism, the discoveries of alchemists paved the way for modern science. Early modern proponents included Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and Elias Ashmole.
Hawthorne had earlier written on the theme of alchemy in his celebrated short story, ‘The Birthmark’ (1843), which tells of a young scientist who becomes dangerously obsessed with removing his beautiful wife’s one bar to perfection. Read it here.
In Greek mythology, Lethe is one of the five rivers of Hades that flow through the Underworld. Enshrouded in perpetual twilight and mist, it winds slowly round the cave of Somnus, the god of sleep. Its name translates literally as oblivion and all who drink its waters — as all souls destined for reincarnation must — instantly forget their past lives. Those condemned to wander the earth as ghosts return to Lethe each day as dawn breaks.
Nepenthe is a drug described by the ancients as engendering forgetfulness of sorrow and pain. Some modern scholars have speculated that it may have been a form of opium.
Paracelsus is the more memorable alias of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), a German-Swiss astrologer, physician, botanist and alchemist. His key idea was that health depended on a harmonious relationship between man the microcosm and nature the macrocosm. This was a radical departure from the received idea that it was governed by the four humors and introduced the idea that disease could be effected by external agents. Paracelsus’s motto was “Alterius non sit qui suus esse potest” (“Let no man belong to another who can belong to himself”), making him a highly apt point of reference for Chillingworth.
One of the greatest missions of alchemy was to discover the philosopher’s stone, a legendary substance that was believed to turn base metals, such as lead and iron, into gold. Belief in the existence of this magical stuff goes back to at least the fourth century and obsessed alchemists well into the seventeenth. Descriptions of the stone’s appearance vary wildly, with some claiming that it is not a stone at all but a form of spiritual matter. Most accounts of how to obtain it are wrapped up in so much esoterica as to be unfathomable; those which make at least a little sense generally recommend fusing sulphur and mercury. Below is an animation of the Mutus Liber (1677), a seventeenth century book that illustrates how to make the philosopher’s stone.
The claim Chillingworth here stakes on Hester is reminiscent of Mephistopheles' words to Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s (1564-93) eponymous play. Like Chillingworth, Faustus is an eminent scientist who, yearning for yet greater knowledge, makes a pact with the devil. When he asks his attendant demon Mephistopheles about the whereabouts of hell, he receives the reply, “Where we are tortur'd and remain for ever: Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib'd In one self-place; but where we are is hell, And where hell is, there must we ever be.” In this literary echo, Chillingworth is at once an agent of Satan and the miserable Faustus who is doomed by his hubristic desire to be greater than God.
Just as whiteness is emblematic of spiritual purity in Christian iconography, blackness symbolizes the demonic, and depictions of Satan as a “black man” have been common for many centuries. During the witchcraft trials, accusations abounded of alleged witches meeting with the devil in the forest — believed to be his natural habitat — for sexual intercourse or to enter into an unholy covenant with him. For the New England Puritans, the similarities between the devil’s skin color and dwelling place and those of the Native Americans meant that the latter were often seen as Satan’s children. The Puritan minister and author Cotton Mather records in his Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) that “Black Man” is what “Witches call the Devil; and they generally say he resembles an Indian” (p. 75).
By and large, Native American customs were much more liberal than those of the Puritans and many were outraged to find themselves punished for activities that were not deemed immoral in their culture. Female adultery, however, did not generally fall into this bracket, though attitudes and sanctions varied between tribes. At the mildest end of the spectrum, the couple would simply separate, leaving each party free to remarry. In more violent cases, the husband would either beat his erring wife or mutilate her nose or ears in order to provide a visible testimony to her sin and to render her unattractive to other men in future.
During Hester’s time, most of Boston’s c.1,200 inhabitants settled in the area surrounding the meeting house on the southern coast of the peninsula. From Hawthorne’s description of the location, it seems likely that Hester took up her cottage residence on the inhospitable marshy lands of the north western coast.
This example of sumptuary hypocrisy is in fact one of which the Puritans were innocent — at least at this point. Corpses were dressed in a simple white shift and mourners too were required to observe austerity in their dress; even donning black clothes was deemed sinful ostentation. This began to change later in the seventeenth century when wearing elaborate mourning gloves, ribbons and cloaks became de rigeur, as did displays of emotion that would have been seen as blasphemous in earlier decades.
Though babies typically wore plain linen smocks for most of their infancy, baptism was a different matter. For this occasion, new-borns were wrapped in special “bearing cloths.” These were made of luxurious fabrics, such as velvet, satin or damask, and were bordered with gold or silver lace, or with lavish embroidery, often in the form of passages from scripture. The money and skill lavished on these articles allowed parents to demonstrate their wealth and social standing in a way that was normally off limits.
The romanticization of the “Orient” — the eastern as opposed to the western world — was in full swing in nineteenth century Europe, where art and literature teemed with depictions of Middle Eastern and Asian life that emphasized sensuality, exoticism and the ornate. This trend, which has come to be viewed as a manifestation of western imperialist condescension, was less overt in America but its influence can still be found in the works of nineteenth century literary giants such as Poe and Hawthorne. You can read more about Hawthorne’s particular brand of Orientalism here.
In the Book of Genesis, Cain is the first son of Adam and Eve. Jealously fearing that his younger brother Abel is preferred to him, he leads him out into the wilderness and slays him. As a punishment, God condemns him to wander the earth as a fugitive for the rest of his days, a fate he fears will result in him being murdered by the first person he encounters. To safeguard him, “the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him” (Genesis 4:15). This mark, though it preserves his life, identifies him as a fratricidal sinner, a doomed man.
This is one of Hawthorne’s favorite themes. He explores it particularly memorably in his 1835 short story ‘Young Goodman Brown,’ the tale of a New England Puritan who becomes acquainted with the true natures of his supposedly virtuous fellow townspeople during a midnight sojourn in the forest. These upright, honest folk are, he finds, all regular attendants of satanic masses and intend to inaugurate him and his wife — the town’s two remaining uncorrupted souls — into their diabolical order. Just as Hester identifies her insights as “the insidious whispers of the bad angel,” Young Goodman Browns’ rob him of his faith in mankind and it is through this, rather than any ritual induction, that the devil gains his soul.
The model for Pearl is thought to be Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody's eldest child, Una (1844-77), who was six years old when The Scarlet Letter was published. She was named after the personification of Truth in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and photographs show her to have been a delicate, elf-like child. Una's life was beset by serious illness, loneliness and disappointment. She never fully recovered from a childhood bout of typhus, was rejected in love for her younger sister, was confined to an asylum for psychosis and lost her fiancé at sea only a short while after becoming engaged. Following her bereavement, she retreated into a convent where she died at the young age of 33.
This is a reference to the Book of Matthew, which asserts that “the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-6). Pearl, purchased by Hester’s sexual sin, is also its redemption. She is in this sense a living analogue of the scarlet letter itself, and her symbolic function is just as protean.
Through this compliment to Pearl’s physical perfection, Hawthorne likens her mother to Eve, the archetypal fallen woman. Hester’s ostracization from the community parallels Eve’s expulsion from Eden; she is likewise guilty of a great sin against God’s commandments and, just as Eve’s sinful state is shared by her descendents, Hester’s is passed on to Pearl. Hawthorne does not use the comparison entirely to her detriment, though: from her own fallen state, Hester sees that all of humanity is equally tainted by Eve’s original sin. The capacity for wickedness is not hers alone but lies in the heart of every human being, and her knowledge of this affords her a new, intuitive communion with her fellow Bostonians.
Since the Puritans believed that we are all born into a state of sin, children — as yet unexposed to the corrective influence of God’s wrath — were particularly troublesome creatures. The main task of parenting was to render them obedient and fearful by breaking their wills. Regular whippings, admonishments and threats of abandonment and castration were all considered good practice. Those who failed to be broken by these cruelties faced an even worse fate: execution was mandated for intractable or rebellious children of sixteen and above.
Sprites have long been known as capricious folk, as capable of malice and mischief as they are of unexpected kindnesses. For Puritans — who, despite their disavowal of superstition, believed in these magical beings with the utmost sincerity — they had a much darker nature. Since they have their roots in pre-Christian beliefs, the Puritans were convinced that fairies were the imps of Satan, and those suspected of having dealings with them were tried as witches. Hawthorne’s likening of Pearl to a sprite therefore signifies her alienation from the Puritan society and the laws governing it.
The idea that a necromancer could conjure up and control demons through the use of magic words, originating in Ancient Egypt, became popular in Europe during the Middle Ages. Spells in grimoires, such as the Key of Solomon and The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, instruct the magician to summon the demon in the name of God as part of a litany that strings together biblical references and cabalistic names. The spirit is usually conjured from within a magic circle so that it can do no harm to its master, whose bidding it is then compelled to perform.
In a society that viewed hard work as the route to self-discipline and prized self-discipline above all else, play was frowned upon. It was a habit of frivolity, so the Puritans thought, that would lead to an adult life marked by idleness at best and sin at worst. Some games — namely those involving cards, dice or bowls — were banned outright; others — singing games, riding hobby-horses and flying kites — were permissible. Play was often highly gendered and, since toys were scarce, depended on children’s improvisation.
Scalping, in which a sharp knife is used to remove part of a person’s scalp and hair, was an attendant part of battle for a number of Native American tribes. That of a slain enemy was a trophy, whilst that of a living one betokened superior might and, it was believed, gave the scalper control over the victim’s spirit. The practice was embraced with gusto by the settlers. Colonial officials placed bounties on the scalps of enemy tribe members during the many wars that erupted, and even Puritan ministers did not find their religious beliefs incompatible with sending their flocks off on scalping expeditions.
Once a person had enlisted in the dark order of witches, diabolical powers, both fantastic and banal, became theirs. They were able to fly and transform themselves into birds and beasts; they used poppets to inflict torments on those they wished to harm; they sent out their specters — ghostly agents invisible to all but the victims — to take sexual advantage of sleeping men. Between times, they visited strange illnesses on cows and prevented bread from rising.
National Geographic have made a fun and extremely well-researched virtual recreation of the Salem witch trials in which you star as a suspected witch. Visit it here. You can also view some of the many rich resources providing detailed historical information, handily collated here.
The pine tree has been a symbol of New England since pre-colonial times. After their arrival, the settlers began to use it on their flags, feeling that its stately dignity, uprightness and austerity captured the ideals of Puritan life, as well as embodying the strange and frightening wilderness against which they were proud to struggle.
Though the pine’s prodigious longevity has made it a symbol of immortality, it is also equated with old age and death. Pines are often planted in cemeteries and engraved on tombstones, while their soft, pliable wood makes them a popular material for coffins.